Beaches and sheet music

I went to the beach with my family this past Sunday, along the Great Lake Ontario. Leaving just as dawn was young and “gold” as Frost my say, my parents and I wound our way up through yawning, rolling fields of wheat, small towns, and scrubby forest. A sleepy fog crept among the trees. Thin clouds filmed the still-blue sky.

Lighting our fire, the lake rolled in and out with a quickened breath that surged beneath the quiet landscape.

By the time my nephews, sister-in-law, and brother came by in frames of car-bundled excitement, the fire was roaring, fed by driftwood and briquettes. Oakley, the middle child, chased the gulls, while Henry, the oldest, joined Charlie, the youngest, at the lake.

“Is this salt water?” one asked.

“No, fresh,” said my brother.

I sort through a box of old sheet music–show-tunes, vaudeville, Chopin, folk–that my great uncle Harry left. Getting his piano, I got the music as well. The piano is a beautiful Steinway & Sons, which Harry picked from a line of pianos over 50 (or is it 60?) years ago. It’s getting old, but the touch is light, fluid, and responsive. And it holds its tonality well. Especially for its age.

Sometimes I play chords, stretching or shrinking them, like one might crinkle or stretch a canvas, listening to the echo, listening to the piano speak. It has a good voice. Mellow. Old. Lingering. I listen to hang in the air like a space of sky.

I wonder what it sounded like as he played. If the resonance changes, like singers who age.

As the day went on, the beach got busy. I love the way beaches are a wash of humanity, all jumbled together. No parking spaces. Just chairs and towels and blue plastic shovels strewn about. Just broad sandy expanse, water, and the dunes that mark the division, laced and piled with fragile plants.

Families form pockets, some an inward-turned island of chairs, others lined up with the ocean like a proscenium in a theater, others forming thin crescents. Others simply stuck and piled like spilled tops.

Helped by their father, my nephews build a castle, relentlessly scratched and dragged at by the water as they fight back with ditches and walls. The current doesn’t roll in or out today. It laps the edge of the walls, seeping now and then into the bailey, like an infiltrating army.

I build levees alongside to help defend the structure.

As we rest, other children use the structures as parking spaces before jetting out into the lake, racing in a flurry of splash and foam.

I sort through the old sheet music, the acid-laced paper frail now. Brittle and old, with the musty mark of attics and old boxes. I don’t need most of it, though I’ve grabbed a few. But still, to hold the sheets, feeling their age and the connection they have to my great uncle, I feel something. Perhaps nostalgia. Perhaps happiness. Perhaps sadness.

I’m not sure if it’s me, or the papers, or the two of us opening up this moment. But something, someone is.

Meanwhile, my father helps “Kevin the Junk Guy” load up Kevin’s rickety, paint-peeling truck with “scrap and crap,” as Kevin once called it. Kevin is mustachioed, with a frizzy wave of gray hair and surprisingly thin legs. He talks in a husky voice, but is excited. He likes metal. And he likes to discuss the odds and ends that pass through his hands, passing though.

My three nephews continue to alternate between lake and sand. Between constructing castles and joining the water in their deconstruction. My brother is a good father. He takes them out, and they toss a Frisbee in wayward angles over the surf.

On the shore, I read Kenneth Burke and people watch. But sometimes, when Oakley wants to, I show him how to build a strong wall. I show him how to get the right texture for the sand–not goopy slop, but not too dry either. We pile, mound, pack, and–now and then–destroy our work.

Stepping back, we look at it.

“It looks like a nose!” yells Oakley.

He makes sneezing sounds and jumps off, into the water. Slowly, the walls crumble with his footwork. But he is happy. And the lake rolls on, breath by breath.

I never met uncle Harry, but I’ve always looked up to him. He graduated from Syracuse University in 1912 and worked as a chemist. But he was also a piano player. Played vaudeville and for the local ice rink, a portrait of Shakespeare and Company atop his piano, or so my dad remembers, pausing on the edge of a room, listening to him practice.

He was a quiet man. Intellectual. A little gawky and lean with glasses and a high forehead. He never married, but didn’t die a bachelor, having finally met someone. The house he lived in was large and stable, yet quiet and practical.

Playing his piano and going to Syracuse University for my PhD this fall, starting orientation tomorrow, I feel the poignant connection holding that paper. A sense of being home. Or at least having a sense of history and the sort of stability that brings.

I brought in a book of sheet music, while Kevin took the rest for his mother.

Oakley decides to destroy our castle, “like the water!” he says. Layering buckets, I (sadly) watch our handiwork dissolve back into the pulp and etchings of an active shore.

I consider St. Augustine and the Trinity. Walking along the beach, contemplating of three beings as one being, he sees a boy trying to fill a hole with nothing but a small pail. That’s absurd, says Augustine, you can’t move the ocean with at bucket! The boy replies, If I can’t do that, then how can you understand God?

Meanwhile, Oakley layers the last bucketful of murky lake water on our crumbled “castle.” Our work finished, we step back.

“Thanks uncle Bretty, I like making castles with you.”

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